“I Don’t Get It”December 1, 2007
Often (i.e. most days) I have conversations like this:
“What question are you on, Natalie?”
“What question are you stuck on?”
“All of them!”
“You can’t be stuck on all of them.”
“Yes I am. I don’t get any of it.”
“Well what question is it that you are having trouble with?”
“All of them”
“I’m not asking you to do all of them at once. Try doing them in order and tell me which one you are stuck on.”
“There isn’t a question one.”
“Well, question A”
“What’s the problem with question A?”
“I don’t get it”
“What don’t you get about it?”
“All of it.”
“Well which bit?”
“All of it.”
“Even the first bit?”
“Well what does it say/”
”Copy and complete the table”
”Do you know what that means?”
“Have you done that?”
“Well can you do that, please. Then ask me for help if you’re stuck.”
(5 minutes later)
“Have you copied the table?”
“Are you stuck”
“No, this is easy.”
However, this entry isn’t really about the kids who don’t get it, it’s for teachers who don’t get it. There are teachers who are unaware of what’s happening in most schools. Some of them comment on my blog, some of them I see discussing issues on teacher forums, and occasionally I talk to such teachers in real life. Usually they have spent their careers exclusively in better than average schools (or alternatively in that peculiar state of denial which only members of SMT are capable of). They have a little difficulty understanding what teachers with tough classes are actually experiencing.
Here’s a few answers to the points they usually make:
Better classroom management would solve all the problems you mention. I’m a great believer in the importance of classroom management as a skill that can be developed. However, the “Fuck-Off-Factor” (the tendency for students to ignore all instructions and verbally abuse anyone who gives them), and “Terroring” (the intimidation of any teacher who attempts to bring about order in the classroom) provides a natural limit to what can be achieved through classroom management. Some of the schools I‘ve worked at have showed staff videos about behaviour management. The best of these showed Bill Rogers establishing routines in a class and enforcing rules in an non-confrontational way. It’s impossible to watch these without thinking: “How come none of the kids tell him to fuck off?”
My school has challenging students too: This point is usually followed by claims about the racial mix of their school, or descriptions of the poorest part of thei catchment area. However, non-white pupils, pupils from a deprived area, or even pupils from a deprived background do not make a school challenging. A school or a class is challenging if poor behaviour and no learning is normal. Background is only part of the equation and stereotypes about race or class can be quite misleading. Only the worst estates have no middle class people living on them, and most of the worst students are white, anyway. Inclusion has let some really extreme cases into good schools, but the question is always “what’s normal?” A school where all the worst behaved kids are recognised as nutters by the other students is not a challenging school. A school where some of the worst behaved kids are seen as an authority by the other students is.
You are bothered by little issues (like students not having pens). Teachers with no experience of the sharp end don’t understand the scale of a “little issue”. A child without a pen is not a major problem if there is only one such child and you don’t mind him working in pencil instead. What they don’t realise is that in a challenging class more than half the students will be without anything to write with (or too lazy to take their pens out of their bags if they do have them). Not only that but most of the ill-equipped students will arrive late, and aim to interrupt the teaching by shouting “I need a pen”. Often they will walk to the front of the class to demand something to write with or start going through the teacher’s desk drawers. They will start arguing if you give them pencils (“I can’t write in pencil”). If you are foolish enough to give them a pen they will take it to pieces and throw the pieces at others in the class. If you give them a pencil it cannot have a rubber on the end (that’s an eraser to any American readers) as they will bite it off and throw it at other students. If they return it at the end of the lesson it will be with the point broken off. Until you manage to come up with routines which minimise the amount of lending you will be handing out up to a hundred pencils in a week of which less than half will be returned in working order.
If kids are rude to you you must have done something wrong. This is my pet hate. Here are some of the things I’ve done to prompt verbal abuse by students:
Walked past them having never met them before.
Told them to stop fighting.
Asked them politely to do some work.
Taught their cousin.
Taken the register in a cover lesson.
Asked them to go to their lesson.
Politely asked them to leave my classroom as they are not in my class.
Suggest they stop climbing the wall.
Of course the usual prompt for verbal abuse is to enforce a school rule.
If you don’t like it you could just leave. Of course I can. Every teacher who wants children to learn can quit. Once the teaching profession is populated only by human sponges able to absorb any punishment and members of SMT unable to take responsibility for anything they do the problems in education will just go away. Alternatively we can and should fight to get the state of our schools recognised and order restored. Why should I give up my calling to teach just because there’s sod all teaching going on in so many schools?